Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

New Zealand Test squad and EPS revealed

Amidst all the build up to the start of the County Championship next week, there have also been the first reminders that the International summer starts in less than a month with New Zealand arriving at the beginning of May for their two Test series. Although it is the norm for the five Ashes Tests to be preceded by a two Test series, it is somewhat disappointing after the excitement of the New Zealand leg of the series for the return affair to be so short. Given that there were only six Tests in the summer last year, an eighth Test this year would have been quite welcome in place of the three ODIs that will be utterly lost in the Champions Trophy.

Scheduling disappointments aside, both the New Zealand touring squad and the England Performance Squad for the full summer were announced this week. There were few surprises in the fifteen named by New Zealand. The XI who played all three Tests in New Zealand were obvious inclusions and they are joined by Doug Bracewell, Martin Guptill, Mark Gillespie and Tom Latham. It is not a great shock given that Bracewell and Guptill both missed out due to injury and Latham and Gillespie were both on the fringes of the side before the start of the series. The interesting omission is that of Daniel Vettori who missed the series in New Zealand with an injury, but is back fit for the tour of England. There was a lot of discussion about whether he would regain his place, but his to even make the squad as a reserve spinner answers that question quite definitively. The squad might also be a bit short of cover in the middle order; Guptill is primarily an opener and Latham at least seems to be treated as an opener. Over the course of only two Tests, however, there is not a lot of need for depth in the squad, especially after the performance at home has clarified a lot of selection problems.

Even though England’s squad was the more general England Performance Squad, there was an important omission. James Taylor continues to make a strong case for being the unluckiest man in England. He has done absolutely nothing wrong, yet Eoin Morgan and his first class average in the thirties was preferred for the squad in India and England took a smaller than usual squad to New Zealand. Now Taylor, despite being one of the only bright spots in a disastrous Lions tour to Australia, appears to be completely forgot behind Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Neither of them really impressed in New Zealand and there is no reason why Taylor should not still be in the picture.

The aforementioned Morgan did get a place in the EPS, presumably for his continued selection in the pyjama forms. He should not be even mentioned in contention for a Test place, however. Not only does he have nothing at the first class level to recommend him, he has chosen to play in the IPL instead of trying to improve his first-class record. If nothing else, that should tell the England selectors quite clearly where his priorities lie. The same is true for Samit Patel, who was dropped for the last Test in India despite being selected as a specialist for the subcontinent.

It looks like it will be down to Root and Bairstow still and I would like to see them each get one Test. Neither have made a decisive case yet (all the more reason to give Taylor a go, but never mind) and unless one of them does so in the first few matches of the County Championship or with the Lions there seems no reason to give one the advantage over the other.

On the bowling side, Tim Bresnan might get a chance to take the third seamer role back from Steven Finn, though the latter’s six-fer in the last Test will have made that harder. And although Monty Panesar looked under some threat for his place as Graeme Swann’s understudy after a poor performance in New Zealand, the only other spinner named in the EPS is Danny Briggs. Whilst it is not out of the question that he could get a Test cap in May, he has been primarily around England’s pyjama sides. That the two Lions spinners, Simon Kerrigan and Scott Borthwick, have been omitted suggests that Panesar is safe.

England squad for New Zealand announced

England released their 15-man squad for the tour of New Zealand today. It is, of course, different from the one I would have selected. But it’s still a strong one overall and England are clearly taking the Kiwis seriously, which is good. Failures in South Africa notwithstanding, they do pose a threat with their bowling and can pull off an upset.

The biggest aspect is that Tim Bresnan has been dropped in favour of Chris Woakes. Apparently Bresnan is going to have more work done on his elbow; it’s clearly not been right since he had surgery on it a year ago. I had him in my squad of 15, but if there is something that actually can be done for his elbow then I’m glad they are trying that instead. I’m not entirely sold on replacing him with Woakes though. Woakes is talented, but I think a bit too much is made of his all-rounder tag. I view him as a bowler who can bat; he tends to come in well down the order for Warwickshire and he has a first-class batting average under forty. It does make him a bit of a like-for-like replacement for Bresnan and he’s certainly a good bowler, but I don’t think he’s better than Stuart Meaker as a bowler and that is who I would have picked after Bresnan. I don’t think batting ability should come into it unless a player is so good with the bat that he could be picked on it alone. For Woakes this clearly isn’t the case so it should only be a matter of who is the better bowler and I think it’s Meaker.

Eoin Morgan and Samit Patel have both dropped out as expected, but it hasn’t opened the door for James Taylor as I would have liked. Taylor will be captaining the England Lions instead, but I think he can count himself horribly unlucky. He did little wrong against South Africa; he had one good innings and one bad innings before being run out by Matt Prior at Lord’s. But he was left out of the tour to India behind Morgan (inexplicably) and to accommodate the horses-for-courses selection of Samit Patel. Now that they are both out Taylor should be back in the frame, but instead he seems to have been all-but-forgot with Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root ahead of him.

The squad that is selected is a strong one overall and it doesn’t leave much doubt about the likely XI. Unless there is another injury before the series starts (and I’m not delighted with England risking Broad in the one day series ahead of the Tests) the only real battle should be for the number six spot and it looks like Root will go into it as the strong favourite. We’ll know for sure in just over a month.

Suggested England Test squad

Tomorrow England will announce their touring party for the three Tests in New Zealand in March. I don’t think there will be any great surprises, but I am keen to see how they decide to pick players on the first tour to more English conditions after the loss to South Africa last summer. As I mentioned a few days ago, Nick Compton ought to retain his spot in the playing XI and although Joe Root will certainly be on the plane I would play him either at six or not at all. It’s also already been confirmed that it will be a 15-man squad with Jonny Bairstow as reserve wicket-keeper.

It is the question of who to bat at six which I think will dominate the squad discussions and lone warmup, though now at least it is because England have many good options instead of none. But they still have both Root and Bairstow and neither have done anything to be dropped and really neither has James Taylor. England seemed to forget about him when naming the side to tour India and I’d like to see him recalled for the series in New Zealand. Samit Patel will presumably be missing out after his poor performance in India and Eoin Morgan should definitely be dropped as well, but with the squad size being cut overall I think Taylor may still miss out. I would have him on the plane though, as injury cover if nothing else. The selectors need to keep him in the picture though even if he does miss out; I thought he looked perfectly capable in the two Tests against South Africa that he played and I think that if England had gone to New Zealand before India he would be in the squad.

The bowling can’t be completely ignored though. There is still the nagging doubts about Stuart Broad’s fitness after his latest injury kept him out of the ODIs in India. He’ll be in the squad, of course, but England should have a plan in place in case he gets injured again. It’s tempting to want to add another bowler as cover (Stuart Meaker the likely candidate), but England do have four other fast bowlers who can expect to be on the plane which should be enough and possibly even more than enough. I would drop Panesar from the squad though as spin is unlikely to play a major role and Root and Kevin Pietersen should be all England need to support Swann. I would either just leave his spot empty (the squad is being cut by three players compared to the India one) or replace him with a batsman.

My squad in full would then be:
Cook*, Anderson, Bairstow, Bell, Bresnan, Broad, Compton, Finn, Onions, Pietersen, Prior, Root, Swann, Taylor, Trott

Compton should open in New Zealand

It’s a bit early to start really looking at the XI to play the first Test against New Zealand; the first Test is still over a month away and England are still playing the ODIs in India. But this week Michael Vaughan said that he thought Joe Root should open the batting in New Zealand with Jonny Bairstow coming back at number six. (I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the former Yorkshire player is advocating two Yorkshire men…) As good as Root has looked and as much as I do think Bairstow deserves more chances, I think it would be a mistake to drop Nick Compton.

Compton looked the perfect Test opener in India; he batted cautiously and wore down the bowlers when he needed to early in the innings and when he had the chance to play more aggressively he showed that he could do that too. He only made the one fifty, but it’s hard to ask for much more from a debutant. Root also played very well in the one Test he played, but not only is that not enough to immediately stick him up the order I don’t think it is enough to even guarantee his place at number six. It was only one Test and I think both Bairstow and James Taylor should still be in the running for the position. Neither have really done anything to be dropped and especially I don’t think that Root’s innings against India were particularly more impressive than Bairstow’s innings at Lord’s against South Africa. (Which is not to take away from Root’s performance, of course.)

The only way Root should open the batting for now is if Compton either gets injured or has a run of failures against New Zealand. This could happen, of course, but Compton has some credit built up and even if he does have some failures he should be given at least a couple of Tests. I would start with Root at six in New Zealand as I don’t think the one warmup England are playing ahead of the Tests will really be enough to knock him off that spot, but I would definitely have Bairstow and Taylor both in the squad. England have three very good options at number six now (making for a pretty drastic change from just a year ago when they didn’t have any) and they shouldn’t chisel any one of them into stone. But at the same time there is no need to get rid of a solid looking opener just to make more room at number six.

England 2012 marks out of ten

Twenty-one different players represented England over fifteen Tests this calendar year. There were, as one can imagine, varying degrees of success and I have given them my year-end marks out of ten here:

Andrew Strauss – 4
The year leading up to Strauss’ resignation and retirement was, as one would expect, not the best for him. He did score a couple of battling fifties in the subcontinent and a pair of centuries to start the summer, but two defeats in four series led to him stepping down.

Alastair Cook – 8
Cook was England’s leading run scorer in 2012 and finished the year by captaining the side to a historic 2-1 series win in India and setting a new English record for most career centuries. He also just barely missed out on finishing the year with a career average above fifty.

Nick Compton – 7
After an incredible season with Somerset, Compton got a chance to open the batting for England in India. He did not quite grab his chance with both hands, but he did play quite solidly throughout and should open again in New Zealand.

Jonathan Trott – 5
It was only an okay year for Trott; he never really played poorly and had a very good innings in Galle. But at the same time he seldom seemed to really click, at least until the excellent 143 he made to help secure a draw in Nagpur.

Kevin Pietersen – 7
On the field it was a great year for Pietersen as he made three excellent centuries, but it was rather more rocky off the field. He came around though and then played the best crafted innings of his career to help put England in a winning position in Calcutta.

Ian Bell – 4
It was a sub-par year for Bell; Saeed Ajmal ran rings around him in the UAE and although Bell batted well after that (he scored six fifties) his mind never quite seemed settled until the last match of the year.

Eoin Morgan – 0
Morgan started the year with a terrible tour of the UAE, scoring only 82 runs in six innings. This wasn’t massively worse than the rest of the team, but coming from a player whose big strength was supposed to be spin bowling it cost him his place in the side. With the number of better options England now have, he should not appear on this list in twelve months’ time.

Jonny Bairstow – 4
Bairstow had a tough start to his career as he was worked over by the West Indies quicks then dropped for the start of the South Africa series. Finally recalled for the Lord’s Test, he made a pair of excellent fifties that helped give England a sniff of victory. He then only got one Test in India and may have fallen behind Joe Root in England’s pecking order.

Ravi Bopara – 0
The reasons why Ravi Bopara should not only not be picked again, but should not have been picked in the first place are fairly well documented here. Suffice to say he did nothing to disprove any of that and seems to have finally fallen completely out of the England picture.

James Taylor – 5
It’s very hard to say anything about James Taylor. He played only two Tests and batted fairly well, being run out by Prior in his last innings. He was then inexplicably left out of the side to tour India in favour of Eoin Morgan. Hopefully he will get another chance, but there are a fair few ahead of him now.

Samit Patel – 3
Patel was picked as a subcontinent specialist in Sri Lanka and India and whilst he never really failed he never did anything of note either and gave no indication that he was a Test player. He was rightly dropped for the last Test.

Joe Root – 7
Root was included in the party to tour India after an excellent season with Yorkshire and although he missed out on the opener’s spot in favour of Compton he did get a chance at six in Nagpur and played an exceptional innings after coming in at a tricky point in the first innings. He is probably the front-runner for the spot in New Zealand, though it’s still not settled.

Matt Prior – 9
It’s hard to ask for much more from Prior. He had another almost flawless year with the gloves and batted brilliantly with England often in strife and with the tail. His biggest problem right now is needless run outs.

Stuart Broad – 6
It was a mixed year for Broad; he started out by demolishing Pakistan in the UAE and taking eleven West Indian wickets at Lord’s. But he struggled to find his pace after that and after a middling series against South Africa he had injury problems in India and was dropped after a pair of shocking Tests. He still finished with a creditable forty wickets in eleven Tests.

Tim Bresnan – 2
After coming off a brilliant 2011, Bresnan started this year with elbow surgery that kept him out of the series in the UAE. He was never quite himself after that; his pace was down and he was not swinging the ball as much. His high point was running through the West Indies at Trent Bridge, but by the end of the year he was only picked due to injuries to other bowlers. His batting is down from what it was as well.

Graeme Swann – 9
He was helped by having nine Tests on the subcontinent, but Swann finishes 2012 as England’s leading wicket taker with 58 in 14 Tests. He was a consistent attacking threat for England and even finished the year with a stylish half-century in the first innings at Nagpur.

James Anderson – 9
Anderson had an incredible year as he seems to quite often. He got swing, both conventional and reverse, even on the notoriously unhelpful subcontinent wickets. He instigated top order collapses in all conditions including twice dismissing Kumar Sangakkara first ball and becoming the all time leading wicket taker against Sachin Tendulkar.

Chris Tremlett – 0
Tremlett played one Test in 2012 in which he failed to take a wicket. Subsequent injury and the success of Steven Finn and Graham Onions means he will have a tough time getting back into the team.

Monty Panesar – 7
Panesar came in as England’s second spinner for six of the nine subcontinent Tests and overall did very well. He took eleven wickets on the raging turner in Mumbai and had a some good performances in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the first innings at Calcutta as well. He did have some trouble maintaining it and Swann will not fear for his place.

Steven Finn – 8
Finn only managed to play in five Tests partly due to injury, but in those Tests he bowled with consistent pace and an improved accuracy, taking twenty wickets. If he can stay fit he looks like he will replace Bresnan as England’s third seamer.

Graham Onions – 6
Onions was probably unlucky to only get one Test this year and especially unlucky to have that Test be almost completely washed out. He did take 4-88 in the only bowling innings though and should stay in England’s thoughts for next season.

Nagpur, day two: India 87-4

After India probably shaded the first day of the Nagpur Test England emphatically won the second. England actually found batting a bit easier in the morning. Perhaps India had been a bit demoralised by Matt Prior and Joe Root playing comfortably the night before and perhaps the pitch was just a tad easier. Prior was ultimately out missing a ball that just went on, but Joe Root continued to bat very well until finally getting a bit too impatient and getting out. It was very similar to the dismissal of Pietersen, actually, and by coincidence occurred on exactly the same score. But it was a very good innings by Root and especially given in how much trouble England were. Perhaps most important was how composed he looked for most of it. It leaves a bit of a selection dilemma for the tour of New Zealand. It would be very harsh to drop Root after this, but Jonny Bairstow had an excellent Test at Lord’s at the end of last summer and the pitches in New Zealand will be closer to that. This is also just the one innings from Root. And then there is James Taylor, who should have been in the squad instead of Eoin Morgan. It is a very tricky problem, but fortunately for England one which can be left for another day.

After Prior was out Graeme Swann came up with a nice reminder of how good a batsman he really can be. A lot of the time when he bats we see him come in at ten with only one of the other bowlers for company and he ends up trying to get quick runs before England are bowled out. This time though he had Root at the other end who was settled and Swann played much more sensibly with him. He still played some shots, but he has the talent to do so within reason and today he had the time to get to 56 before he started getting over aggressive and was lbw reverse sweeping. It isn’t the shot one really minds from a tail-ender, and especially not one batting with Jimmy Anderson, but it is not a shot with a good reward to risk ratio and there was really no need to play it at that point. It was a very good innings overall though and Swann’s first fifty since 2009. Hopefully this innings is enough to ensure that he bats a bit higher up the order next time and has a chance to form a proper partnership.

England’s score of 330 looked like a decent one. India have to win this game and batting last I would estimate they need no fewer than four hundred in the first innings. That did not look like it would be easy to get at the start of the innings and now at stumps it looks very unlikely. I suggested yesterday that the success of Ishant Sharma would bode well for Jimmy Anderson and that is exactly what happened. Anderson was not only the best bowler, he was almost unplayable. He took three wickets and the dismissals of Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir were both set up beautifully. He did not have time to set up Virender Sehwag though: the ball that knocked over Sehwag’s middle stump was only the third of the innings. He beat the bat of Virat Kohli a few times as well and looked an almost constant threat during his spell after tea.

Part of the reason Anderson was so threatening though was the bowling of the rest of the attack. England started off attacking, but eventually settled down into the same plan that India had used. Not only did it have the same effect of building the pressure, but England’s spinners also started to find real turn. With Tim Bresnan getting the ball to move about and Swann and Monty Panesar getting the ball to turn and even bounce a bit there was no way for India to really release the pressure without playing some shots. Anderson was bowling better than the other three, but I don’t think he would have had the same success without the pressure being built at the other end as well.

There was also some very good captaincy by Alastair Cook. Tendulkar had looked uncertain against Panesar, but Cook brought Anderson on to bowl instead and it paid off with the fifth ball. It was the ninth time Anderson had dismissed Tendulkar, giving him sole possession of the record for most dismissals of Tendulkar. It will also bring the questions of how long Tendulkar will stay in Test cricket back to the fore. The ball that got him was a good one that nipped back in, but Tendulkar’s footwork was absent and he seemed surprised that the ball kept low despite almost every ball in the match doing the same. It was a great ball, but he played it very poorly and there was a strong sensation as he walked off that it was his penultimate innings. Certainly it ought to be. He is doing neither the team nor himself any favours by hanging on.

England are in control of the Test. The two batsmen at the crease now for India are out of form and looked very uncertain playing out the rest of the day. The next man in is on debut, though he has had a good domestic season, and after that is only Ravichandran Ashwin and the tail. Ashwin has batted well in the series, but it is not a good idea to put one’s hopes on a number eight, even a good one. Even if he does score some runs again it won’t matter if the other batsmen don’t get some first. India can’t afford to only get up to parity; they have to get a first innings lead which means they will have to bat all day tomorrow and then some. It’s not a task they can leave for the number eight, though may be too much even for the recognised batsmen. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility of course, but it’s less likely than the alternative and at the other end of the spectrum England have a chance to effectively put the match to rest with one very good hour in the first half of the day.

England squad in India

With the retirement of Andrew Strauss, there now another aspect to the question of how England will look when they play India on the 15th of November. England need a new opener in addition to deciding how they want the middle order to look and deciding on the balance of the bowling attack.

As far as an opening partner for Cook goes, there are three main possibilities: Trott could be moved up a spot with someone like Nick Compton coming in to the middle order, Joe Root of Yorkshire could come in or Michael Carberry could come in. Of the three, I think moving Trott up would be a very bad idea. He has batted at three for almost his entire career and despite being a bit short of form at the moment he has had great success at that spot. To move him would also necessitate moving Ian Bell up to three and them possibly leaving three batsmen at four, five and six with only six caps between them. I would rather break up the inexperience. Choosing between Root and Carberry is interesting because a couple of years ago there really would not have been a choice. Carberry was the heir apparent and was even given a Test against Bangladesh when Strauss was rested in 2010. But he suffered from a blood clot in the lung and although he has fought back from that his form has fallen off this year and Root has had a blinder. (Both have been in Division Two.) I’d be quite tempted to have them both on the plane to India and see who looks better in the warmups. I’d have Root as the favourite though and (with a couple of LV=CC matches still to come, of course) if I had to pick just one right now it would be him.

With the bowling attack, England still have the ‘problem’ of having more Test quality bowers than they can fit into a single match. There is also the added problem in India of whether to play two spinners and if so how many seamers to play alongside them. The received wisdom is to play two spinners in India and indeed anywhere on the subcontinent. It is important as it provides a threat when there is not a lot of help for the seamers as well as a way to keep the scoring tied down. But England’s strength is seam bowling. We have seen in New Zealand’s series in India that good seam bowlers can get help from the Indian pitches and can make life difficult for the batsmen, at least in August. I think England would be well advised to play three seam bowlers, but that does not rule out two spinners. England played three seamers and two spinners in the one match they won over the winter last year, so Flower is clearly not impossibly set against the idea and it has been successful. I favour five bowlers anyway, but especially in conditions such as in India that can be quite draining on the bowlers. To play three seamers and two spinners would give England ample options for both attack and defence and I think they will need that.

The most obvious second spinner would be Monty Panesar, though Samit Patel does offer more with the bat and acquitted himself decently in Sri Lanka. He did not, however, look Test quality and England may need a bit more in a four Test series. There is also the matter of Swann’s elbow to be considered. He is being rested from the ODIs against South Africa, but it is not at all clear how fit he will be in India. England could not afford to have just Patel and a half-fit Swann, I think, which would mean an almost certain recall for Monty Panesar. He didn’t look great in the one match he played in Sri Lanka, but he was very good in the UAE before that and his nearest competition, James Tredwell and Simon Kerrigan, are a bit short of international quality and still too inexperienced respectively. At least one of them (and with an eye to the future I would have it be Kerrigan) should be in the squad as backup, but I would not expect them to play unless Swann is so injured he has to miss a Test.

This just leaves the middle order. Right now it is Trott, Bell, Taylor and Bairstow, but if England do play five bowlers than one of them would have to miss out and it’s a fair assumption that it will be one of the lower two. (Though if Trott is moved up to open then that would no longer be the case.) Bairstow is probably the favourite to stay in the side after his heroics at Lord’s, but Taylor looked very talented as well and should at least be on the plane. He can push for a spot in the playing XI during the warmups. There will also be no doubt suggestions of recalls for Eoin Morgan and/or Kevin Pietersen. Neither should be seriously considered, however. Morgan did well by announcing that he wanted to focus on his Test career, but he still has to back that up by actually refining his technique and improving at the first class level. He may get back in the test side at some point, but he is behind both Bairstow and Taylor now and will need to prove himself over most or all of a season with Middlesex. Pietersen should simply never be considered for England again. Most of his actions this summer have been unconscionable and although he was not the main reason for Strauss’s departure there can be little doubt that he does carry some of the blame. As Rob Smyth put very well in the Guardian: ‘if he cannot see “Straussy’s” blood on his hands, he has an even bigger lack of self-awareness than we feared’. Pietersen threw England into disarray at the end of 2008 and he is having a go at doing so again. Regardless of how talented he may be, it is time England got shot of him for good.

With all of the above in mind, my touring squad to India would be: Cook*, Anderson, Bairstow, Bell, Bresnan, Broad, Carberry, Davies†, Finn, Kerrigan, Panesar, Prior†, Root, Swann, Taylor, Trott

The playing XI would depend heavily on the results of warmup matches, but I would lean toward: Cook*, Root, Trott, Bell, Bairstow, Prior†, Broad, Swann, Anderson, Finn, Panesar

England 0-2 South Africa review and player marks

It should have been more than just three matches. The second two Tests were very good, very close and very much left one wanting more. But fortunately the possibility that the reduced series might have robbed us all of a proper result did not come to pass. South Africa were very much the better side and deserved to win. England came close in the last two Tests, but never looked like outplaying South Africa and I don’t think even the most partisan Englishman would begrudge South Africa their victory.

England were always up against it after their dismal performance in the first Test. The batsmen gave away a good start, the bowlers toiled for three days on a flat wicket and then the batsmen succumbed to the pressure of trying to bat out the draw. Whilst they did improve dramatically in the next two Tests, it was always going to be a tough task to come back and South Africa were simply too good. Michael Vaughan put it well on TMS when he said that throughout the series when England built partnerships one always got the feeling that South Africa would find a way to break them, but when South Africa built partnerships it felt like they would bat indefinitely. Part of this was that England threw wickets away too regularly (though South Africa did so as well) and part was that England dropped too many catches in the field. But I think a lot of it was to due with the fact that the English bowling often just looked too flat. South Africa seemed to always have something whether it be swing, bite or just raw pace and aggression. When the ball stopped swinging for England, however, all too often one simply could not see how they were going to get a wicket. It was a fairly harsh come down after they had performed so well in the subcontinent in the winter.

Both sides have slightly to somewhat tricky tours up next in the forms of India and Australia, but first here are how the players did in this series:

England (75/140, average 5.36)
Andrew Strauss* – 5
Stayed calm, measured and reasonable as the KP problem overshadowed the third Test and his hundredth. Led the side admirably as England went for the runs both at Headingley and Lord’s, but his own form was quite poor. His nemesis, Morkel, got him with the fourth ball of the series and the best Strauss could do after that was just making starts. His dismissal on the fourth day at Lord’s told of a someone who had a trying week.

Alastair Cook – 6
Scored 195 runs in the series, but 115 of them were in his first innings. Threw his wicket away a few times (once out of necessity at Headingley), but also had problems with the bowlers nipping it back into him and was lbw to Philander twice.

Jonathan Trott – 4
Somehow managed to average over forty in the series despite looking terrible throughout. Had a decent knock in the first Test before getting out to a terrible waft outside off. He also threw away his wicket after a good start at Headingley and edged his way to 63 at the Oval whilst running out Taylor for good measure. Starts show he is seeing the ball okay, but needs to regain the patience he showed most notably in the last Ashes.

Ian Bell – 6
Played some good innings in the series, but had the same trouble as most of the batsmen in getting out to poor shots. Played very well to try to save England at the Oval and dig them out of a first innings hole at Lord’s, but should have gone on in both innings. The fifties were useful, but England needed hundreds.

James Taylor – 5
Replaced Bopara for the Headingley Test and had a decent debut. His 34 was hardly going to set the world alight, but it was very patiently scored over the course of 104 balls in fairly difficult circumstances. Didn’t get many at Lord’s but was the victim of a decent ball in the first innings and was done up by Prior in the second. Should have a spot on the plane to India.

Jonny Bairstow – 9
Harshly dropped for the first two Tests after it was perceived that he had a problem with the short ball against the West Indies, but made a strong statement when he returned for the last one. Came in with the score 54-4 in the first innings, rescued England and came agonisingly close to getting on the Lord’s honours board. Came in with the score 45-4 in the second innings and scored a fifty at better than a run a ball to (amazingly) keep England in the match. Could not have asked for much more.

Matt Prior† – 8
England’s leading run scorer in the series by a distance; he scored valuable runs with the tail in four of the six innings and had a fifty in each Test. The only marks against him with the bat were some soft dismissals after he had got to fifty. Somewhat offset though by his stunning 73 in the last Test which gave England a sniff of a very improbable victory. Was good with the gloves, but dropped Amla on two in the last Test (his first drop standing back for two years) which ultimately cost England 119 runs.

Stuart Broad – 4
Came into the series having averaged 19 with the ball in the past twelve months, but had a very poor series. His pace was well down for most of the series and he only had one really good spell, in the second innings at Headingley. He did swing the ball some in the last Test, but never looked as threatening as he had last year. Fairly poor series with the bat as well, but found a bit of form at Lord’s.

Graeme Swann – 4
Had trouble really getting into the series with the ball. Bowed some very good spells in the two Tests he played, but by and large the South African batsmen were equal to the challenge. Took only four wickets, all of them in the last Test and one thanks only to a very clever bit of work from Prior. Managed to average exactly fifty with the bat, however, which was good enough for third best in the series on the English side and hit a thrilling 41 on the last day.

James Anderson – 6
Desperately unlucky for most of the series; he had a few spells where he beat the bat with regularity but was not rewarded. Unlike in the winter, though, he could not always coax enough movement out of it to trouble the batsmen when they were well set. Looked flat at periods when the ball was not swinging and ended up without a lot of reward.

Steven Finn – 8
Finally got his chance when Swann was left out for the Headingley Test and had problems with his knee hitting the stumps, denying him a wicket in the first innings. Did well enough to keep his place for the Lord’s Test though and was brilliant there. He provided a much needed pace option when the ball was not swinging and his spell on the fourth day almost got England back into the Test. Has given Bresnan a bit of work to do to get back in the side.

Kevin Pietersen – 8
His off-the-pitch antics were almost the only story in the run up to the third Test, for which he was dropped. My thoughts on that matter are well documented, but on the pitch he had a good series. His 149 at Headingley was an absolutely staggering innings and included hitting Dale Steyn back over his head for six. Tempered somewhat by his throwing his wicket away in both innings at the Oval and costing England a good position in the first. Also performed admirably with the ball at Headingley when Swann was absent. Was outdone by his replacement, Bairstow, at Lord’s.

Ravi Bopara – 1
Scored 22 runs total in the only Test he played. Threw his wicket away to an appalling shot in the first innings and then to a poor one in the second, though in that innings he had at least hung on for a while before hand. Missed the next two Test due to personal reasons and the performances of Taylor and Bairstow will make it tricky for him to reclaim that spot. Inexplicably, he is expected to have a chance anyway.

Tim Bresnan – 1
A very poor series for the Yorkshireman saw him dropped for the Lord’s Test in favour of Steven Finn. Before that he had taken just two wickets, both of Smith and both in rather surprising ways, for over two hundred runs. His batting had suffered a bit too and he was going much more slowly than usual. Seems to still not be up to full strength.

South Africa (73/110, average 6.64)
Graeme Smith* – 8
A relatively poor tour of England for the South African skipper, he ‘only’ averaged 54 and ‘only’ scored one century. He also appears to have failed to cause the resignation of his opposite number. Still did very well, of course and his captaincy was at the best I’ve seen it. He declared aggressively at the Oval and was rewarded with an innings victory and made an odd declaration going for an unlikely win at Headingley.

Alviro Petersen – 7
Out for a duck at the Oval and had three days to think about it whilst his teammates batted and batted. If anything though, that time seemed to help him as he scored 182 at Headingley to see South Africa to a decent score. Didn’t get many in the second innings after injuring his hamstring and only had a couple of starts in the third Test, but still did enough to average over sixty in the series.

Hashim Amla – 10
Amla is the sort of batsman one could watch forever and for England fans that seemed to be what happened. Hit an unbeaten triple century in the first Test (when he came to the wicket in the third over) and then backed that up with a vital and arguably match-winning hundred in the second innings of the last Test. Only looked human when he hit a full toss straight to cover in the second Test and when he got a jaffa from Finn in the third. England fans will be relieved to see him bat against the Aussies for a while.

Jacques Kallis – 7
Came into the series with a very poor record in England and looked like turning it around with 182* at the Oval. His next highest score in the series was 31, however, though he was brutally given out in the first innings at Lord’s. Did manage to pick up four wickets in the series as well, including the important one of Broad on the last day at Lord’s.

AB de Villiers† – 5
Did well with the gloves in his spell as Test ‘keeper. Made few clear mistakes and none which might not have been made by a full-time gloveman. Did not perform as well as South Africa might have liked with the bat though; he scored no fifties in four innings. He did pass forty three times, however.

Jacques Rudolph – 4
Not a great series for the former Yorkshire batsman. He did not get to bat at the Oval, of course, and somehow managed to get out twice to Pietersen at Headingley. Finished the series with just one fifty to his name and an average of 35.

JP Duminy – 6
His highest score in the series was the 61 he made in the first innings at Lord’s, but that disguises the fact that he put on some incredibly frustrating runs with the tail. His second innings partnership with Philander probably won the third Test for South Africa. Was also stranded on 48* at Headingley and was South Africa’s best spinner.

Vernon Philander – 9
He did not run through England the way he had done to other teams in his career, but he did bowl extremely well. He consistently bowled a good line and length and got the ball to nip around making life very difficult for the batsmen. Man of the Match in the last Test with 96 runs in the two innings and a five-fer to bowl England out. Might have been Man of the Series were it not for Amla.

Dale Steyn – 9
Bowled with his usual pace, hostility and accuracy and was rewarded with the 15 wickets, the most of any bowler in the series. His five-fer at the Oval made sure that England could not bat out a draw and he picked up important wickets throughout the series. Was only made to look bad by Pietersen at Headingley.

Morne Morkel – 6
Drifted between brilliant and wayward. Usually opened the bowling to Strauss and Cook as both have problems with him at his best, but this was only effective twice as he was simply too inaccurate most of the time. One of those times was in the fourth ball of the series, however, which seemed to convince Smith to keep trying it.

Imran Tahir – 2
It’s never a good series when one is outbowled by both JP Duminy and Kevin Pietersen and that is what happened to Imran Tahir. Only managed one top order wicket in the series, that of Strauss, and his only strength seemed to be an ability to get Prior late in the innings as the latter went for quick runs. Was utterly taken apart on the last day of the series as England tried to get a win.

South Africa win by 51 runs

Last night I thought today was going to be a pretty dismal day. Today was not only the last day of the Test, but the last day of the series and the last day of Test cricket this summer. That is always a sad day and this was also going to be the day that England lost the number one ranking. I expected a relatively steady procession of English wickets until a finish sometime around tea. Instead England started the morning session with an incredibly attacking intent. Trott and Bell were playing almost a shot a ball and missing more than they were hitting. It looked like batting to a plan, but it also never really looked like coming off. The ball was still quite new and it was cloudy making it swing. If anything it was swinging too much for South Africa to really make inroads; the batsmen were frequently not even coming close. It did manage to account for Bell, however and probably should have done for Trott too. It was a phrenetic morning and it only got more chaotic when Trott ran out James Taylor as the latter went for a fourth run. It was very, very poor from Trott as the fourth was definitely on. Taylor is quick and he was the one running to the danger end, but Prior stood his ground. Taylor would certainly have beat the original throw, but had to go back almost the full length of the pitch and the relay throw from South Africa beat him. It was a very disappointing dismissal for both the obvious reason that it left England four down and still 300 runs (exactly) behind but also because Taylor was deprived of a chance to show his Test credentials ahead of the India tour. He had a good, but not world beating, Test at Headingley and only scored ten in the first innings here. He would have really liked a chance to get a big score and secure himself and I think England would have liked to get a better look at him.

At 45-4 there was a suggestion that England might be all out well before tea, if they even made it to lunch. Trott was still batting madly and Bairstow came in and started playing aggressively too. Bairstow, however, was much more restrained than Prior. He was scoring freely, but off of balls that were less likely to get him out. It wasn’t the same throwing of the bat that we were seeing from Trott and it was actually much more effective; he was scoring at better than a run a ball. Although he departed after lunch and just before Trott did as well, England kept going for it. A draw would not have got anything directly for England, but there were reasons for trying to get one. But that was clearly not what England had in mind and astonishingly they they were not out of the match until the penultimate ball of the day. Prior played a brilliant innings, Broad scored a very good 37 off 42 and Swann scored 41 off 34. They all got out going for runs and in other circumstances their dismissals would have been terrible. But in this case it was clear what England were doing and no one could have had any complaints. England actually got above the required run rate late on during the Prior-Swann partnership as they completely took Imran Tahir apart. In the end it was not enough. England fell short. But it was an astonishing effort and some absolutely thrilling entertainment for everyone watching. When England were 280-7 there still seemed a very real chance that England could do it.

In the end, no one would argue that South Africa did not deserve to win. They played the better cricket in this Test and won the big moments. They got vital runs when they needed to and kept England at bay consistently. England dropped too many catches and let South Africa off the hook with tail end runs the one time they had a real chance. Although the stat most commonly cited is the number of runs scored by South Africans after drops, I think the tail end runs were a bigger issue. There will always be a few drops and whilst it is important to come back and get others (which England did not do well) there is much less of an excuse for tail end runs. England lost by 51 runs; South Africa’s bowling quartet scored 168 runs in the match and Philander managed 96 of them himself. That is simply too many and it cost England badly in the final reckoning. Even if they had only managed to shave 30 off the eighth wicket partnership of 54 it would have made a difference to the complexion of the match as it neared the end. And if they had managed to break it promptly they might have won outright.

Not only was it a deserved victory for South Africa in the Test it was a deserved one in the series. England fought back well after the debacle at the Oval, but South Africa always just looked like the better side overall. There’s a reason for that. They have been number two for a while now and should enjoy their new position at the top. But thank you to England for making a good day out of what should have been a terrible one.